Last week I interviewed Chrissy Ryan of new north London bookshop / bar Bookbar. She's someone with an almost irresistible gift for suggesting books and so I walked out with three titles, one of which was Theft. Chrissy commented that she was suprised it wasn't more widely known, 'a hidden gem'.
Buy Theft from Bookshop.org
The novel is set in the London literary world, the protagonist Paul works at the London Review Bookshop (a bookshop that manages to be at the same time charming and intellectually intimidating, tucked away in the heart of Bloomsbury – it's one of my favourites), with a side hustle writing the books column for a magazine called 'White Jesus'. 'Who knows exactly why? Paul wonders, early on, 'The title is composed of words of equal length convenient for cover design, allows for occasional crucifixion photo shoots, appeals to the editor's messiah complex and offends 'civilians', by whom the editor might mean 'Christians', who aren't offended at all, who remain unaware of the magazine, not working in fashion or hairdressing, or living in Dalston.'
As you can tell, the writing is pin-sharp and full of delicious observation. Paul's mother has recently died and we learn he and his sister Amy have inherited her house in a northern coastal town. Realistically, Paul notes, the value of the house split between the two of them will give him just about enough for the down-payment on a two-bedroom ex-council flat in the far, far south of London a quarter of an hour's walk from the tube. Meanwhile he is living practically rent free in a crumbling flat above a branch of Greggs on East London's busy Kingsland Road. He has a shifting collection of friends some of whom occasionally come into focus but the central characters in this book are Emily, a successful writer he interviews, her partner Andrew, an older popular historian, and Andrew's daughter Sophie, starting to make a name for herself as a columnist.
I went on a strange arc with this book because I liked Paul. He seemed unhappy, but not desperately so and as someone, like many, who grew up outside of London and then moved here in my twenties I identified with his awareness of shifting identities. I then made the mistake of breaking off to read a couple of reviews, and was surprised to learn that the reviewers in question did not like this main character, The Telegraph asking 'is this the most loathsome hipster in modern fiction?' Coming back to the book I found I had lost all my empathy and for a few pages I was wondering why I was wasting my time. But just goes to show you should make up your own mind about a book because gradually the writing and these beautifully drawn characters drew me back in again. I didn't find Paul loathsome, I just thought that like a lot of people he was following his impulses, doing what seemed right to him and what I loved was the way the author built his character so carefully that everything that happens in the course of the book felt absolutely true to the way you expect this person to behave. It's also a cast of morally ambivalent characters and I didn't think Paul behaved better or worse than any of the others. Things don't turn out particularly well, but I also loved the way the novel is left open in a way that felt carefully considered rather than that Luke Brown couldn't figure out how to tie things up. I love books where the characters are free to live on in your imagination and Paul was sufficiently intriguing and mixed up, I liked being able to wonder where he would end up.
As – to be fair – the Telegraph reviewer also pointed out, just as you think you can't stand Paul, the author wrongfoots you with something vulnerable or tender and I loved that the book had all these different emotional notes. It is, as Alexandra Kleeman says on the back cover 'a quick-witted tale of generational crisis', weaving in Brexit, economics, education and privilege. In terms of story there's not all that much to it, it was the writing that was unexpected, sharp, thoughtful, multilayered and often darkly funny. Impressive, then that Brown manages to do so much with this simple narrative built around timeless themes of friendship, envy and desire – I enjoyed it very much.
Further reading: Hmn. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney might fit the bill not only in subject matter but with characters you're not quite sure if you like or not. Also try early-days Rachel Cusk. Her first novel, Saving Agnes is a coming-of-age story with a female protagonist set in the London magazine world. It won the Whitbread First Novel award in 1993. I read it around that time and it's a testament to how good it is that bits of it have stayed with me to this day. A book I haven't read but which looks promising is Bestseller from real-life publisher Alessandro Gallenzi and if you were ever thinking of reading How To Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young, now might be the time. Also, just in, Hannah in my book club recommends The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne, a ‘screwball tale of millennial angst, pre-midlife crises and one man's valiant quest to come of age in his thirties’. Hannah reports that she thought it was going to be annoying but it was actually very funny with a scene that made her laugh out loud about the main character trying to sabotage another couple's attempt to put in an offer on a flat that he had viewed and couldn't afford. One for the list.